Study Guide

A Clockwork Orange

By Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange Introduction

Quick question: what can you do in only three weeks?

If you pay attention to the covers of a number of magazines, you know you can (a) get some super-toned arms, (b) start your meditation practice, or (c) transform your house into a clutter-free minimalist paradise. In other words, for the average human, three weeks is enough time to either achieve something small or start something larger.

Proof #1 that Anthony Burgess is anything but an average human: he wrote his most famous novel in only three weeks. (Source)

Proof #2 that Anthony Burgess is anything but an average human? The novel he wrote (in only three weeks, mind you) is A Clockwork Orange.

This deeply unsettling masterpiece burst on the scene in 1962, shocking readers because of both its extreme violence and its extreme brilliance. Before A Clockwork Orange came out, Burgess had been best known for his work as a linguist and because of a "sweetly satiric" trilogy of novels about the end of British Colonialism on the Malay Peninsula.

Yeah. That was the last time anyone would accuse Anthony Burgess of being "sweetly satiric."

Because A Clockwork Orange follows the exploits of Alex, possibly the most amoral protagonist in literature. This guy beats people up for fun, steals for fun, drinks drug-laced milk for fun, and rapes and murders for fun. He's a living nightmare: a bloodthirsty, cruel and demonic kid who's finally placed behind bars when his buddies turn on him.

But this is only the halfway point of Alex's twisted saga. He gets put in an experimental treatment program called "the Ludovico technique," where he's brainwashed into feeling deep nausea whenever he's exposed to anything violent. This has the effect of turning a formerly dangerous criminal into a risk-averse shadow of his former self—in fact, he's so physically revolted by the idea of violence that he'd rather suffer himself than put anyone in harm's way.

In other words: he's lost his free will.

And believe it or not, the fact that Anthony Burgess created a philosophical parable about modern ethics is only one of the two main reasons A Clockwork Orange is so crazy-brilliant. The other reason is that Burgess created a new dialect: Alex and his friends speak "nadsat" a Russian-influenced slang that's so pervasive (and, frankly, so hard to understand) that most copies of A Clockwork Orange include a glossary.

Of course, we can't talk about the legacy of A Clockwork Orange without mentioning the thing that imprinted that title into the collective consciousness: Stanley Kurbick's 1971 movie version. You've seen the stills, you've seen the Halloween costumes, and you're probably even familiar with "the Kubrick stare." Maybe you've even sat down and seen the whole thing. In our book, it's a brilliant film, and one worthy of Burgess' novel.

But Burgess had other thoughts. In fact, he hated the movie so much that he wished he's never written the book in the first place:

We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate [...] it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation. (Source)

Lucky for us, though, you can't unring a bell...and you can't unwrite a book, especially not one as notoriously genius as A Clockwork Orange. Even if you forget Kubrick's movie version (which is, um, hard to do) A Clockwork Orange still has a place on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list and Time's "Best English-Language Novels Published Since 1923." It's safe to say that this novel has a place in literary history.

And it's safe to say that Burgess gets the gold medal for "Best Achievement Completed In Three Weeks."

What is A Clockwork Orange About and Why Should I Care?

Two words: free will.

The protagonist of A Clockwork Orange is almost demonic. And we're not being hyperbolic: Alex isn't just a misunderstood kid who steals candy bars. He enjoys raping ten-year-olds. He enjoys murdering old women. He's a despicable human, one without any redeeming character traits.

And, sure: the narrative of A Clockwork Orange is nightmarish when Alex is a free agent roaming the streets at night and wreaking absolute havoc. But it really levels up in the nightmare fodder department when Alex is put behind bars and subject to the Ludovico technique: a brainwashing program that makes Alex physically incapable of functioning in the presence of violence.

You may be familiar with the process of the Ludovico technique from Kubrick's famous (and brilliant) 1971 movie version of A Clockwork Orange. Alex is tied down to a chair, his eyes propped open with metal pins (yeah—it's disturbing) and forced to watch films of depicting terrible violence. He's also injected with a serum that makes him experience overwhelming nausea when he sees these films.

The result? Alex is turned into a totally violence-averse human, one who needs to dedicate himself to avoiding all violence in order to keep from retching.

And this, folks, is where A Clockwork Orange gets really, really dark. Because while pre-Ludovico Alex is a monster, post-Ludovico Alex is just a different kind of monster—one whose humanity has been sapped and replaced with automatic impulses. It doesn't matter that Alex is less of a menace to society; he's been made into a machine and is incapable of thinking for himself.

That's the central problem at the heart of A Clockwork Orange. It's a novel concerned less with roving street gangs of bloodthirsty youth than with what's left when the element of choice has been removed from a person's brain. Can people be truly moral without the ability to choose? Nope: Anthony Burgess argues that without choice, people exist outside of morals. Alex without the power of choice is even more amoral than Alex with the power of choice.

In other words: Alex hasn't been made into a good person. Alex's person-hood has simply been erased.

You might dismiss the Ludovico technique as simply being a sci-fi element to the narration. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong—it has a historical precedent. Check out The Smithsonian's overview of Project MKUltra—otherwise known as the "mid-century mind control project." Fair warning: reading this link may send you spiraling down the rabbit hole of the internet...or may give you nightmares.

But hey: if you're reading A Clockwork Orange, you're probably not sleeping all that soundly in any case.

   

A Clockwork Orange Resources

Movie or TV Productions

A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick, 1971
A screenplay adapted from the book by Stanley Kubrick

Bananes Mecaniques, Jean-Francois Davey, 1973
A copycat version including sex with goats and soundtrack by death metal

An Examination of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, John Musilli, 1972
Talk-show with Anthony Burgess himself

Great Bolshy Yarblockos! Making A Clockwork Orange, Gary Leva, 2007
Documentary of the making of A Clockwork Orange

WarnerBros Site
WB Site devoted to Stanley Kubrick's films

Images

Movie still
Here is Alex being strapped into the dentist's chair looking frightened of the films he's supposed to watch

Collage of movie stills
This basically summarizes it

Clockwork Orange Beetle!
The Clockwork Orange mobile

Documents

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation
All you ever wanted to know about Anthony Burgess

A Prophetic and Violent Masterpiece
Theodore Dalrymple on A Clockwork Orange

Interview
Interview of Anthony Burgess by John Cullinan at The Paris Review

Other

Clockwork Orange: Clothing Retailers in Northern Ireland
Alternative clothing being sold by the same name!